Independence Day

Submitted into Contest #1 in response to: Write a story about someone turning 100 years old.... view prompt



Independence Day

by Jason Tweed

"Dad, where are the keys?"

"Daaad!", Ainsley shouts.

"They are on the hook. You know, where you're supposed to put them…" Max replies.

Ainsley had mastered the eye roll in her 17 years on the planet. Max finds it somehow endearing. It is like a silent, "I love you", between father and daughter. It also might be a silent "fuck you", but Max chooses to ignore the double meaning.

"Don't forget," he says softly, "we have Grammy's birthday thing tonight."

"Do I have to? There are only a limited number of senior year Fridays. I want to go to the football game with Carter and Sarah." She says.

"Seriously? It's Grammy's 100th birthday, and you're the one worried about not many Friday nights left? Nevermind. You're going. We should be home by nine. Plenty of time for necking with Carter."

"Shut up. 'Necking'. How old are you?" She snaps as she grabs her backpack.

"Have a good day. Stretch your brain, Twittlebug." He calls from the kitchen table."

"Bye. Don't call me Twi…"… SLAM. And another Friday begins.


Grammy, known to the staff as Gladys to those she liked and Mrs. Bettens to those she didn't, winces as Jimothy opened the shades.

"Time to get rolling, Mrs. B." He says cheerily.

"Wipe that shit-eaters grin off your face, you son-of-a-bitch!" She grumbles from her bed.

"No, Gladys, I'm not your son, ya-old bitty." Jim laughs.

Gladys loves Jim. He'd been working at the Manor since the first week she'd been a resident there, 10 1/2 years, give or take. His sunny disposition aside, he is the only one on staff willing to go toe-to-toe with her. Everyone else in the place treated her extra nice because they hated her or were afraid of her. Gladys was comfortable with either.

Jim's favorite way to introduce her to the new staff that seemed to perpetually come and go was to tell them, "This is Gladys Bettens. If you look up 'cantankerous' in the dictionary, there's a picture of Gladys."

The new trainee, usually some squeaky clean white girl fresh off the six week nurse's aide course at the community college, would respond, "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Bettens".

"My friends call me Gladys."

She would smile, "Great. Terrific to meet you, Gladys."

"That's Mrs. Bettens to you, Missy!", She'd snap.

Jim and Gladys had been through the routine at least 75 times. He would set them up, she would smack them down. Most newbies lasted three months. If they stuck around for a year, she would let up on them a little, but only Jim had become more than a servant with a bedpan to Gladys.

Snapping back into the present, she yells at Jim, "close the damn drapes", which he did by half as not to starve the room entirely from sunlight.

Jim says "There is some nice flowers at the desk from your son. Should I…"

"Just leave them out there for the nurses. I don't want to compete with a bucket of flowers as to which of us is going to wilt and die first." She interrupts.

"Don't you even want to see them?" Jim asks.

"Gerber daisies. Seven of them. Probably with some smily faced balloon on a stick." She snorts.

Jim looks down the hall. She had nailed it.

Her son visits usually once or twice a year. Jim wonders if he would show up for the birthday party. Probably not. He would've been carrying the daisies himself. The guy was busy, and loaded. At 70-something he was still flying around the world doing whatever he did. Mr. Bettens was a venture capitalist. As far as Jim could tell, he bought up little companies with big ideas. If they made money, great, because he owned half. If they didn't, he would liquidate and sell off the intellectual property for twice what he paid, usually leaving the people with a big ideas out of cash and ideas. Yeah. He probably is too busy to attend his mother's 100th birthday.

Her grandson, Max, visited her at least once a week. He would drag his daughter along about once a month.

His wife stopped after work on Wednesdays, and would spend the evening watching Jeopardy and whatever bachelor dating show or teenybopper singing contest was on the tube that night. Gladys and Beth didn't have much in common, but it was a comfortable silence. They'd close the door for 90 minutes before bed, and just watch quietly. No teenagers or husbands asking for something to eat, and no "hens" as Gladys called the nurses who scurried and clucked to the latest gossip in the hallways.

Max, Beth, and Jimothy made up the entirety of Gladys social circle. She'd always had lots of friends, but most of them had died 20 years earlier or "caught that old-timers disease". It wasn't a big group, but she wasn't unhappy, in spite of her cantankerous nature.


Max's phone made a distinctive "meep-meep", a sound bite from the old roadrunner cartoon. His ring tone is the theme song from Peanuts. He turned 49 in June, but still surrounded himself with tchotchkes of childhood cartoons. His Mickey Mouse telephone still sits on his desk, even though they haven't had a landline in five years. A poster of Snoopy at his typewriter dawns the walls of his home office. He has an original cell in a frame of Pepe le Pew kissing his Mi Amore.

Ainsley hates that picture. "You know, Dad, he was a rapist! Look. No means no!" He tried to explain the context, but she'd shut him down. "There is no context for rape!"

Max knew she is right. He still likes the cell. He'll probably eBay it soon.

Meep-meep. Max looks at his phone. Text from Ainsley.

"School done. Going to Grammy's after the gym. C U there ."

– "Okay. Can you pick up the cake? It's at Wegmans by the gym. I'm riding with mom."

"Fine. Is this party a surprise?"

– "No. At 100 years old, it's not a surprise party, it's a surprise coronary!"

"Gross. Jerk."

– "<3 U 2" He smiled.

They both have the same snarky sense of humor. They share that with Grandma Gladys. Ainsley reminds him a lot of her sometimes. He'd seen old photos of Gladys in her 20s. There is a resemblance to Ainsley three generations later.


Jimothy volunteered to work a double today. He specifically wants to be around for Gladys. Older people have a tendency to fade away shortly before or after a birthday, particularly a big one. In his 10 years he'd seen so many residents transition into whatever is next.

With all his experience he should have some theory as to where they were headed after this life, but he doesn’t know. Was it a beautiful place with pearly gates at the entrance? Was it some type of enlightenment? Are we destined to be recycled into worm food? Do our atoms simply disperse into the bigger universe? He doesn’t know. He just thinks of it as slipping into the dark. Not that he hadn't contemplated about it long and hard; conclusions just never came. The more he sees death, the less he knows.

While he hadn't figured out much about what happens after slipping into the dark, he knows lots about the journey and its final moments.

Alzheimer's is the most troubling. In the end, the connections are gone and the road to the dark is extremely bumpy. They have no choice in the matter. There is just confusion and fear that doesn’t subside until it ends abruptly.

With cancer, CHF or COPD, it’s a fight. The darkness comes simply when the patient succumbs to the fatigue. He states when healthy people talk about "losing the fight" because they don’t understand that fighting is winning. These diseases will not stop. There is no conquering hero, only the act of fighting for a few extra days, weeks, or months. Winning is about extending time and experiencing just a little bit more.

Then there are folks like Gladys. That old bitty is hitting 100 today. She is healthy, at least as healthy as you can be after century. Her mind, while certainly not as snappy as it was early in her life, is still constantly aware of her surroundings and possesses a certain amount of wisdom about people that can only be accrued over time.

She knows she is cantankerous. She has just shed all the drama. She has a way of digging straight into someone, seeing into their soul, and finding the diamonds and rinsing away the rest. Diamonds always are created under pressure, and she feels that part of her last years on earth should be spent applying pressure to the young. She calls Jim an old soul because he had aged prematurely. At 32 years old he'd already experienced this pressure.

His first experience with death was at 19. Actually, it was at 21.

He knew every back alley of Erie, Pennsylvania. Delivering 17 pizzas per night in all kinds of weather in dreary Erie can make you an expert. His girlfriend called. She was supposed to be at the Manor at 11, but was nervous about driving in the snow.

"Just follow the PennDOT truck down Peach Street. Drive on their salt and cinders, and you'll never go sliding." He would tell her.

"Who do they follow? How did they keep from sliding?" She'd ask, and he'd laugh.

That night Michelle called. "They're shortstaffed and need me to come in. I don't want to drive in this weather. The guy on WJET said it's freezing rain and snow all night."

"That's why I never watch the weather." Jim said. "I'm in Millcreek. I'll pick you up and run you over on my way back to the shop."

It was a little slippery. They turned onto Peach Street, headed toward the lakefront, and immediately slid through the intersection. Black ice. Jim kept control, but they slid to a stop with two wheels on the sidewalk. Michelle looked at him a little pale, then they both laughed. Behind her through the passenger window Jim could see the PennDOT truck pulling out of the same intersection. The mammoth truck loaded with salt broke loose in the same spot. Instead of sliding through, it spun. Six massive tires couldn’t control six tons of rock salt. Michelle never saw the truck coming, wheels locked as it slid backwards down the hill toward the car. Jim’s face went pale as the tailgate of the dump truck with the salt spreader mounted on the rear crushed into the little Toyota. Jim was 19. Michelle was 20.

Jim didn’t truly experience death on that day.

He opened his eyes and bright sunlight streamed through the hospital window. The window was open a crack, which he thought odd for January. Jim’s sister walked into the room. She’d been living in Israel studying entomology. Had she flown all the way back to see him?

She let out a shriek when she saw him looking her way trying to focus. “You’re awake!” And she gave him a hug.

Jim expected it to hurt, flashing back to the collision, but her hug with soothing and other than a little stiffness he seemed unscathed.

“You came home?” He asked.

His sister just smiled. She looked like she had more to say but just stayed silent.

A doctor and several nurses rushed in. They were all mumbling quietly. Jim felt like a spectacle.

The doctor looked at his pupils. Asked him how he felt, and then asked what he could remember.

A warm breeze came in the window at that moment and Jim realized it was no longer January. He’d been unconscious through his 20th and 21st birthdays, and it was now late summer. His sister wasn’t home to visit, she had graduated that spring.

Michelle is gone. She never saw her 21st. His last memory is her face, smiling, as the salt truck was sliding toward them. The only memento of their relationship he has ’til this day, Gladys’ 100th birthday, the 2-inch scar above his eyebrow sliced by the torn sheet metal from the passenger side door where Michelle had been sitting.

Since then Jim had experienced death more than 200 times between his work in hospice and the skilled nursing facility where Gladys resided. Jim wants to make sure her spirits were strong and today won’t be the day she slips into the darkness.


Ainsley drives extra-cautiously to the Manor, as not to let the birthday cake slip around inside the box.

It was a simple cake, only eight inches around. The decoration is only the number 100 followed by an exclamation point in bright red. She’s pretty sure her dad doesn’t know the meaning of the emoji.

She texts her dad a thumbs up. She’d been driving nearly 2 years and he still insists on a text upon safe arrival. At first it was annoying, but now it feels kind of nice.

“I’m here, got the cake.” She texts in a follow-up.

She talks the phone in her back pocket and gets the cake from her car.

“AINSLEY!” She hears from across the parking lot.

Normally a tall older man with a ponytail and jet black hipster beard calling to her in a parking lot would’ve been scary, but Jimothy had these strange blue kind eyes that put everyone at ease, in spite of the scar that dawns his right eye causing a permanent gap in his thick eyebrow.

“I should ask him about that scar someday.” She thinks to herself.

He snaps a paper party hat to her head and grabs the cake. They walk inside together and he makes small talk in two minute walk to Grammy’s “apartment” as he calls it.


Gladys feels tears welling up in her eyes instantly as Ainsley walks in the door. She hugs Grammy and sits as Jim shuffles about adding a candle to the cake. Candles are strictly forbidden, but Gladys doesn’t use oxygen, and Jim figures they can’t kick her out.

“I’ll leave you young ladies to your party.” He winks at Gladys as he leaves.

Max and Beth are expected soon, but Ainsley wants time to ask questions she dare not in front of her parents.

Ainsley had discovered a couple years earlier that her great-grandmother was only 18 when she married.

“Well, you do silly things when you get knocked up.” Gladys says, matter-of-factly.

“WHAT?” Ainsley gasps.

“I got pregnant at your age. Back then you had to get married.” Gladys shrugs. “Today you have unlimited choices.”

“But Grandpa Keith isn’t that old, is he?” Ainsley axed.

Gladys smiles. “No, our little girl didn’t make it.”

That launches a powerful conversation.

Ainsley learns that Grammy had two completely different lives. She married Bill Bettens immediately after learning of her pregnancy. She lost the baby late in pregnancy. She attended Normal school to be a teacher, for which she acquired “special permission” from her husband. She taught several years, until she became pregnant again. That marked the end of her career. A married teacher was unusual, but a teacher with children was unthinkable.

Baby Keith was born at home on the same day that Bill Bettens marched into Mauthausen. “I gained one man, and lost another that day.” Gladys tells her. Bill came home from the war, but never recovered from the things he saw. He lost his faith in God and replaced it with cognac. “He never abused me, but he wasn’t ever fully there.”

“I was liberated in 1962.” Gladys says to Ainsley. Keith went off to college the same summer that Bill’s liver finally succumbed to his abuse. “I drove your grandpa to Columbia and decided to just keep driving.”

Over the next three decades Gladys visited 49 states and more than two dozen countries.

Ainsley is fascinated by her independence. She had a remarkable life filled with stories, quite literally. She wrote for travel magazines under the nom de plume “Billy Martell”.

“Why the pen name?” Ainsley axed.

“Women never traveled alone. I would always travel as Mrs. Martell.” She explains. Her writing had always been from the perspective of a young man with his bride.

The name Billy Martell was a slightly sarcastic homage to her late husband. “Bill’s favorite cognac was Martell.”

Two hours passed in a heartbeat. Ainsley hasn’t even realized that the party has only two attendees with occasional interruptions from a shuffling male nurse.

Ainsley looks at her phone. 8:45 PM. Of all nights for her mother to be running late, of course she’d pick one important to Max and Grammy.

Inspired, Ainsley decides to spend time every week with Grammy and dig into her mountain of knowledge and experience. This vibrant independent woman spent a century defying convention.

Ainsley’s confidence swells like never before. Ainsley has unlimited potential, and now a mentor. She may not have much time with Grammy, but she is going to absorb every drop of this woman’s power possible.

“Why did you never visit the 50th state?” Ainsley asks.

“I almost did. I was heading to the airport to catch a plane to Seattle, and then to Anchorage when I got a phone call. Max’s wife, Beth, was in labor. I turned around and came straight to the hospital to meet my new great-granddaughter.” She smiles intensely at Ainsley. “I just realized there was a more important life at home.”


As the last streams of sunlight disappear, the door to the hallway opens. Ainsley looks up to see her parents, but it is just Jimothy.

Jim walks in. His normally light skin is strikingly pale. His kind smiling eyes are blank, and his lips closed tight. Ainsley never forgot that expression.

“There was an accident.” Long pause. “Beth and Max.” Long pause. “They’re gone.”

August 09, 2019 15:12

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